Simone Leigh seems to have been everywhere recently—at the Whitney Biennial, on the High Line, and in the Guggenheim—providing an opportunity for an in-depth engagement with her creative concerns. Leigh’s sculptures and installations incorporate a wide range of materials, from stoneware and raffia to pipe, concrete block, and more recently, cast bronze, creating a mash-up of functional objects and architectural-scaled constructions that argues for a more diverse and inclusive high art practice. Together, her materials form a repertoire of figures, vessels, and hut-like structures that speak from and to black female experience. Like the braided clay that adorns some of her ceramic sculptures, Leigh’s practice articulates a richly interwoven narrative of recuperation, resistance, restitution, and healing that directly addresses this core viewership even as it puts the broader public on notice.
Leigh’s 2018 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim took its title, “Loophole of Retreat,” from a chapter in abolitionist Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). The phrase alludes to the tiny attic crawl space where Jacobs hid for seven years, a place (and an idiom) signifying enclosure and enactment, filled with discursive potential—as a means of escape from an impossible situation, as a sanctuary and refuge where one can withdraw, contemplate, and plan the next move, and particularly in its secluded, enclosed darkness, as a place symbolic of the narrow, restricted role for black women in white America.
Leigh’s installation imagined the possibilities of Jacobs’s axiom through sculptural “bodies” that evoke disparate, alternative modes of agency. For Leigh, whose background is in ceramics, this meant challenging notions of craft and the sculptural tradition of the classical nude while purposefully mixing cultural codes to engage and circumvent notions of vessel, dwelling, shelter, conduit, and void in an expansive dialogue about blackness, otherness, and difference, and the spaces of women’s labor. Though her female heads and busts often lack eyes (and ears), the smooth, hollowed-out sockets imply refusal and a rich, inward-turning vision rather than erased identity or blindness. The Guggenheim show featured two larger-than-life cast bronze sculptures combining busts of afro-headed women with utilitarian objects. In Jug, an armless nude torso rests atop a cone-like storage vessel that resembles a wide-hooped skirt. Both container and body, the form is richly surfaced with a dark patina that reflects back as impenetrable blackness, sealing off any discovery of the content hidden inside. Sentinel inverts the scheme. Now, a head without eyes is affixed to a raffia skirt and a large pipe, like those used for irrigation ditches or underground tunnels, to suggest a sphinx-like figure. The pipe provides a range of associations, from water transport or nourishment to passage, both emptying out and filling in the vessel that is the enacted black female body.
In the back corner, hidden behind a wall constructed of decorative ceramic blocks, a stoneware vase with braided edges was accompanied by a sound piece made in collaboration with poet, musician, and activist Moor Mother. Juxtaposing the labor of giving birth with stories of incarceration—in particular, the story of Debbie Africa, a member of the Philadelphia MOVE collective, who delivered her child in prison while other women protected her by distracting the guards—this highly politicized combination of visual form and sound once again demonstrated the strength and defiance of black women.
One of the most engaging aspects of Leigh’s work derives from the way that she uses scale and placement to manage and even circumvent our response, replacing the desire for explanation with open-ended inquiry. Panoptica, in the Guggenheim show, was a case in point. A red terra-cotta pipe chimney rises up from a multi-tiered, raffia-covered base resembling a Batammaliba roundhouse from Togo and a hoop skirt. Looming overhead, the hybrid body/building, its pipe both a chimney and a woman’s torso, represents both hearth and home. The warm raffia beckons, offering shelter, yet no entrance can be found.
Leigh’s Brick House, commissioned for the High Line Plinth (on view through September 2020), looks out from between glass skyscrapers at the Spur, at the junction of 10th Avenue and 30th Street. At 16 feet tall, this cast bronze is her most monumental piece to date—the large, eyeless head, with its strong features, afro, and cornrow-braided hair, inserts its curves and imposing presence into the rigid geometry of the surrounding city, tempering harsh verticality and cold materials with a natural and nurturing note. The head sits atop a dome-shaped body/base that, as in Leigh’s other works, overlays a mix of references, including vernacular architecture—from Mammy’s Cupboard on Route 61 in Natchez, Mississippi, which merges domestic cook and mammy stereotypes, to teleuk dwellings of the Mousgoum people in Cameroon and Chad. Brick House cannot help but remind us of just how few monuments are dedicated to African Americans in New York; only one of them, Alison Saar’s Harriet Tubman Memorial (2008) in Harlem, is devoted to a woman. Brick House provides another model, commemorating in its serene, slightly bowed, unseeing head the healing power of black women’s subjectivity.
This discursive exchange on the restorative and resistive potential of black women characterizes much of Leigh’s recent work. During the run of her Hugo Boss Prize show, she extended her exploration of community care, self-help, and recovery through a day-long conference on mobilizing black women’s intellectual labor. Daily screenings of Untitled (M*A*S*H)—her video set in a mobile medical unit, which references the United Order of Tents (a secret society of black female nurses founded in 1910)—and two related films by Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich reinforced the message. Together with the three sculptures on view at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, these examples of Leigh’s recent projects reclaim the vessel of the black female body, filling it up and into a state of being.